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The power of magical thinking

The Dail election and the Left

6 February 2020

The current election poses very serious strategic challenges for the socialist groups standing. Their electoral strategy has been a success in terms of resources and income for each group, but they have made no progress towards building a broader movement - indeed politically they are more fragmented than ever and their vote fell sharply in the last election. Rather than a serious examination of the problems they face, they resort to magical thinking: a series of assumptions that hinders analysis.

A key assumption is the 48% motivation.  Less than 48% of voters support Fine Gael and Fianna Fail! (Late polls suggest 42%). Because a majority oppose the major parties this is then assumed to mean that the conditions are right for a broad left coalition, maybe even a left government! This is simply the theory of the electoral popular front, pushed by the Communist Party for decades and now adopted by PbP.  Groups identifying as Trotskyist will never, they say, join a coalition with the major capitalist parties but their main strategy is to join with other groups whose main aim is exactly that, a coalition with the Right! To all practical extents and purposes this amounts to a popular front strategy.

There's a key difference between the terms left and socialist. One can argue that Sinn Fein are to the left of Fianna Fail in relative terms but it would be much more difficult to claim that they are a socialist movement. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, especially when their central aim is to enter a capitalist government. PbP has spent considerable time 'redwashing' Sinn Fein, seemingly unaware that the logic of their position may lead voters to ignore their own organisation and vote for what has been ordained to be the largest 'left' organisation - and that is exactly what appears to be happening in this election.

The socialist movement in Ireland is tiny but it is a profound error to promote Parties that are not socialist into the ranks of the Left in order to persuade voters that they are voting for a large force.  The theoretical adjustment that allows for these Parties to be accepted as 'Left' then inevitably clears the way for more pragmatic moves further to the right in order to preserve the unity of this imaginary coalition. This rightward dynamic has been bolstered by increased influence in the Dail which has led to an increasing fetishisation of parliament which not so long ago would have been recognised as irreformable by many of the same leftists.

The 48% illusion is a childish denial of reality but it is also part of a general reformist illusion advanced by many groups across Europe. There is a prominent current in Left thinking, engendered by a long period of defeat, that the workers will not fight and the best thing to do is to unite with progressives to win an improved capitalism.

The problem is that while this long period of defeat has strengthened tendencies towards an unMarxist pessimistic thinking which overestimates the strength and stability of capitalism their acceptance of a reformist course of action runs up against a capitalist system which is indeed in crisis. Capitalism today is not willing to blithely make concessions to 'progressives'. A long depression following the banking collapse has focused them on improving the rate of profit at the expense of the working class and only immense pressure from a mobilised working class could bring about even tiny reforms.

With the Left focus firmly on the Dail the presentation of a socialist programme is neglected. Right wing governments have risen up around programmes of repression and austerity. In the Irish State almost all the parties standing, some of which have the temerity to refer to themselves as socialist, were involved in governments which implemented savage austerity.  The centrist and reformist Left present instead vague reformist electoral alliances that are a bag of mush in the face of this focussed capitalist offensive.

Perhaps the biggest example of magical thinking is the illusion of Irish independence. The reformist Left spell out in immense detail a land of milk and honey if a Left government can get capitalism to change its spots. They do not pose a confrontation with capital but present a classically Keynesian perspective in order to fund this new world. Tax the rich! Not the well off you understand, just the really really rich.

But their Keynesian model does not fit the Irish State. It is not an independent capitalist entity but a semi-colonial dependency. This dependence is never referenced. The massive sovereign debt, used to pay off the European banks, is not seen as central and the actions of Irish capitalism in acting for imperialist interests is ignored. The lack of public services, constant privatisation and the involvement of vulture funds is never linked to the strictures of the European Central bank or the IMF.

Compounding this blindness to imperialism, economic recovery is in turn not viewed in class terms. Instead, headline figures are taken as a generic social reality even though the upsurge in anger against Fine Gael is based on a popular awareness of continued austerity for the working class. Even many capitalists are beginning to see through the figures and question the dependence of State income on corporation tax as this is increasingly based on the State's role as a tax haven for transnational capital, the flows of which produces exaggerated GDP figures.

An even stranger illusion, built across society, is the illusion of Ireland as a 26 county nation. Despite a strong popular sympathy for Irish unity, the ruling class writes the 6 Northern counties out of the everyday narrative. An unintended consequence of this is that it helps Sinn Fein to stand as a Left party in the Southern elections despite its role in a far right coalition in the North and its responsibility for savage austerity there.

Arising from the myth of independence is the myth of a mass socialist party. The history of modern Irish trade unionism in the South has been based on nationalist collaboration with Irish capitalism, formalised for over a quarter of a century in the concept of social partnership. The Labour party evolved, not to form a Social Democratic government, but to act as coalition partners in right wing governments and form a bridge through which union leaderships could continue collaboration and negotiate concessions which would justify that collaboration. Many radical formations, based on calls for national independence, arose but lacked a coherent class programme and fell again and Ireland, fractured by partition and with a weak native economy, never had accumulated the colonial treasure that made a welfare state affordable for the imperialist powers.

So the dynamic of the Dail election is very different from the European norm. In the absence of a mass Social Democratic party the main mechanism of political action is clientelism.  Resolution of personal and social issues is through direct contact with the local party machine or Dail Deputy. Often constituencies will elect independents who will trade their vote in order to win preferential treatment for their area. A well-known and much admired example was the left TD Tony Gregory, who openly auctioned his vote in return for tens of millions for inner city Dublin.

For today's Left, making political adaptations to this sort of environment by transforming your organisation from a 'Party' in to a 'Network' makes class independence difficult and makes all the socialist groups' mantra of a 'broad party' or 'broad left government' which includes the politically undefined 'independents' the stuff that dreams are made of.

While electoral office has benefitted the major Left groups the smaller groups are largely invisible to voters who support the individuals who appear as candidates and are seen as independent because of their high level of visibility and local activity.  In what should be a period of increasing co-operation working towards building a common revolutionary programme the Left groups scrabble against each other for influence in the Dail, calling for unity while they splinter and stand against each other in bitter contests.

Once we throw aside the magical thinking, it's easier to understand the dynamics of the 2020 election. Ongoing austerity led to the effective collapse of the national government.  Fine Gael went to the country on a "never had it so good" slogan.  That, and an unrepentant unionism that saw them try to commemorate the Black and Tans, has seen an explosion of anger.

Traditionally the way to express that anger would be to vote Fianna Fail, and they are still likely to be the biggest party, but many remember their confidence and supply role in maintaining the Fine Gael government and just prior to that their own role in the bank guarantee that bankrupted the country.

The next step is to look for the meat in the sandwich that will restrain the "cute hoors" in the major parties. In the past this was the role of the Labour party, but their own disgraceful record in government is too recent to generate recovery.  The Green Party has gained recently, but they too enforced austerity and their timid election programme generates little interest.

All the signs are that Fianna Fail will come out on top but short of a majority.  They can then choose between a return to national government, coalition with Sinn Fein, or a "rainbow coalition" where the smaller  parties and independents come into their own and the localist horse trading begins. That will not mean that nothing has changed. The election came about as a result of growing exasperation at unending austerity and all the parties have responded in varying degrees with promises of reform.  The new government will try to resolve the contradictions by robbing Peter to pay Paul but what will not change will be Irish capitalism's place in the world, its corruption and domination by imperialism. A handful of Left candidates committed solely to parliamentary speechmaking will not pose a challenge but as further crises and struggles erupt a challenge will emerge from the same masses that are driving the present explosion of anger.

Where will that challenge come from?

The main source of resistance is around specific elements of austerity; taxes such as the Universal Social Charge and Property tax, pay and pension cuts, increasing the pension age and the two tier pay structure in the public sector, privatisation of services, sell off of public land and increasingly catastrophic failures of health and housing provision. Ironically PbP/Solidarity, who initially argued that they would use the Dail as a platform to build these struggles, have revealed the petit bourgeois nature of their politics and moved firmly towards parliamentarianism, happy to allow the trade union bureaucracy to lie like a wet blanket over these burning sources of discontent.

Republican groups have generally a better political position on imperialism, especially in comparison to the SP, and are shifting leftwards but a theoretical orientation to traditional militarist strategy and an inability to confront Sinn Fein handicap many.

In Ireland social partnership makes class struggle almost invisible and the Good Friday Agreement replaces anti-imperialism with sectarian wrangles over 'cultural identity' and a 'fair' share of the funding scraps from Westminster's increasingly austere budget allowance.

A new party of the working class, a new resistance, will view class struggle and the struggle against imperialist domination as one issue. Clientelist localism will be replaced by national demands and those demands cannot ignore imperialism, North and South.

The starting point in the construction of a new party is to look reality squarely in the eye, dispense with magical thinking and confront the betrayals and collaboration of those who pretend to represent the working class; the trade union bureaucracy and Sinn Fein.

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